Hudson Reporter

City Requires Local Small Businesses To Have Sick Days

Some say matter may have legal pushback

The Hudson Reporter — Sunday, November 1, 2015

By Al Sullivan
Reporter staff writer

The City Council has voted to expand Jersey City's earned sick day ordinance so that all businesses are now required to provide paid sick days to their employees.

Using a health code provision, on Wednesday the council voted 7 to 1 with one abstention to require businesses with fewer than 10 employees to let workers earn up to three paid sick days per year. Companies with more than 10 are already required to provide five paid sick days per year.

In 2013, Jersey City became the first city in New Jersey and only the sixth in the nation to pass an earned sick leave ordinance. But the original ordinance only required paid sick days for companies with ten or more employees.

Under the law, which takes effect Nov. 28, private businesses in Jersey City must offer one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked until they reach the required days. The expansion of coverage under the new law includes thousands of part-time and temporary employees. The new legislation brings it in line with ordinances in other New Jersey communities adopted since 2013.

Is the law legal?

Councilman Richard Boggiano, who abstained on the measure, said he had obtained legal opinion that barred the city from implementing such a law.

"People will sue the city over this," he predicted.

Corporation Counsel Jeremy Farrell said the law falls under health regulations which the city has the authority to enforce.

Supporters say the law will stop employees from forcing themselves to work when they are sick, which will benefit companies and customers as a whole.

The expanded regulation was co-sponsored by Council President Rolando R. Lavarro, Jr. (who also sponsored the 2013 law) and Councilwoman At-Large Joyce Watterman.

"We're extremely proud that, in 2013, we made Jersey City the first city in the state — and the sixth in the country — to pass paid-sick leave," said Mayor Steven Fulop. "Since then, we've seen how well the legislation has worked — for businesses and workers alike — and I couldn't be prouder to see the City Council approve legislation expanding and strengthening this crucial policy."

Lavarro said that expanding the earned sick days ordinance fulfills a commitment that the City Council and administration made to Jersey City's workforce when the policy was first enacted two years ago.

"When we passed the original ordinance, we said we would undertake a thorough review of whether earned sick days was working as intended, and we promised that as long as the policy was benefiting both our city's workers and businesses, we would expand it to cover an even greater share of our workforce," Lavarro said. "Now that we know that earned sick days have been such a success, the City Council is prepared to make good on that promise. This ordinance will make Jersey City an even healthier place to live and work, while setting an example for communities around New Jersey to follow."

Watterman said she also recognized the positive role earned sick days have played in Jersey City.

"By strengthening Jersey City's groundbreaking earned sick time ordinance, we're protecting the public health while ensuring that no one who works in Jersey City will ever have to choose between their family's health and their livelihood," Watterman said. "This is the right thing to do for Jersey City's working families, and the smart thing to do for our communities."

Not everybody agreed

While the change received support from workers' rights and labor groups, business leaders were split on the law.

Unlike 2013, when a number of business leaders spoke out against the law, only a few people opposed the change. Several speakers said that law would force businesses to cut back on help to cover the increased cost.

Christine Barresi, director of the McGinley Square Special Improvement District, asked the council to delay passage. She said the city should work with business owners for a fair sick day law.

"The Board of Directors of the McGinley Square Special Improvement District would like to work with business people and the city to get a consensus and come up with a fair sick leave law," Barresi said. Councilman Michael Yun, who voted against the measure, agreed.

In the past, some business leaders felt that the law would hurt small businesses most and startup companies.

But a survey of workers and businesses conducted by the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University one year after the Jersey City law went into effect in 2013 found that 42 percent of the businesses that changed their policies because of the law reported reduced employee turnover, increased productivity and an improved candidate pool. And far from abusing their paid sick days, most workers saved them for when they needed them and used only three of the five they earned over the course of the year.

Tony Sandkamp, owner of Sandkamp Woodworks LLC, in Jersey City, said he's always offered employees six days, and said the negative impact was minimal.

"My employees don't abuse these sick days, and tend to save them for when they really need them," Sandkamp said. "All my employees had sick days left."

He said the law helps him retain employees, and the overall cost to retrain employees is much harder.

"Employees feel the financial pressure to come in sick and they could infect other employees. This would cost business even more," Sandkamp said.

"We have offered paid sick days to all our employees since the beginning," said Yonel Lettelier, a member of the New Jersey Main Street Alliance and owner of Lolo Organics, an organic food cafe that opened in March of 2015. "As business owners we have to consider the human needs of our employees. If they are sick, or they need to care for a family member, they should not have to worry about not getting a paycheck."

A model for the state?

Coalition members that worked to advance earned sick days in Jersey City and other municipalities include New Jersey Citizen Action, the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition, New Jersey Working Families, SEIU 32BJ, New Jersey Communities United, and CWA District 1.

"Over the last two years Jersey City has shown the rest of the country that everybody benefits when workers can earn time to care for themselves and their family, and now they are leading the way again," said Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families.

Daniel Santiago, a member of a local Filipino community group, said many people are forced to work even when sick because they need income and live pay check to pay check.

"Having paid sick days will greatly help," Santiago said.

Councilman Frank Gajewski said he's worked in government for over 30 years and never took a sick day off.

"I never needed to. But the sick days were available if I needed them," he said. "I can't see why this isn't a good idea."

Councilwoman Candice Osborne said the law makes sense.

"From a policy standpoint, it is not good to have people who are sick handling food," she said.

But Osborne said requirements differ around the state and she is hoping that the state will set a standard that would create consistency. She said she hoped Jersey City would become a model for a statewide earned sick day provision.

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